Who makes public health decisions for your community? In Pennsylvania, it depends when you live

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HARRISBURG — For more than two years, public health officials have been answering Pennsylvanians’ most pressing questions about the coronavirus: Where are the tests available? Are masks necessary? Who can get vaccinated?

Who provides this information and how easily it is found may depend on where you live. About half of the state’s nearly 13 million residents live in a county or city covered by a local health department. The other half — many of whom live in rural areas of Pennsylvania — rely solely on the state for a limited number of public health resources and services.

Continued:Consultant: York County should have a health department – and here’s how to go about it

Continued:From tests to vaccines, Pennsylvania health officials still lack crucial data on the race for COVID-19

The split setup presented new challenges during the pandemic as local authorities worked to collect rapidly changing data and communicate evolving health advice to residents.

In places with a local health service, many of these tasks were handled by field health officers. But in counties that don’t, some officials said they’re frustrated with a lack of communication with the state and limited control over how decisions are made. As a result, a few considered creating their own local health services. Some of those plans were eventually scrapped, while other counties are still considering how to move forward.

To better understand these discussions, Spotlight PA spoke with public health experts, researchers, and local and state health officials to probe how local health departments work, when they can be helpful, and why some counties have chose to walk away.

Do I have a local health service?

If you live in Allegheny, Bucks, Chester, Erie, Montgomery, or Philadelphia counties, you have a county-level health department. Allentown, Bethlehem, Wilkes-Barre and York all operate municipal health services. The newest local health department, in Delaware County, is nearing final state approval and is expected to officially launch this year. These areas represent 46% of the state’s population.

If you live elsewhere, you get services directly from the state Department of Health.

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